A Little Writing Goes a Long Way: Using Microwriting to Improve Student Engagement and Performance
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This project for an Advanced Spanish Composition and Grammar course sought to improve outcomes in student writing, particularly in terms of strength of thesis statements and content, through the incorporation of short, targeted writing assignments. Results show positive impact of both analytical and creative writing pieces on student outcomes.
— Sean Gullickson (2021)
SPAN 424: Advanced Spanish Composition and Grammar is required of all Spanish majors and minors and is designed to prepare students to be successful writers in advanced literature and culture seminars and capstone courses.
After teaching the course twice, it became apparent that student engagement with the texts used for class discussion and essays was lower than desired, many students struggled to formulate strong thesis statements, and the structure of essay assignments needed to be brought more in line with a process writing model
Prompts were divided into two types. One asked students to engage with the text being read for the next class. On these weeks, students were given the choice to write a more traditional analytical piece or a creative one. The second type of assignment functioned as essay preparation, asking students to provide a proto-thesis statement in addition to a short draft and/or bullet points of their arguments. Both types of writing prompts were used in class to drive discussion, either of readings or of their essays and a peer review process.
Over the course of a semester, my class focused on ensuring all students have access to high-quality instruction. We examined methods that supported educators in providing meaningful opportunities for all students to learn. In this section, I have selected work samples from a key assignment in which students reflect on this question of access and research a topic that they notice might interfere with learning. Students presented their topic to the class beginning with a simulation activity and then shared tips for classroom teachers.
This intervention had a clear, positive impact on the course while adding little to student or instructor workload. Student evaluations praised the micro-writings, in particular the inclusion of a creative option. Rubric data supports students’ conclusions. When comparing an essay that was common to this and previous iterations of the course, students showed statistically significant improvement in both targeted “Thesis” and “Content” categories, and slight statistical improvement in overall scores. Microwriting also improved engagement with texts as indicated by in-class discussion and participation.
SPAN 424 (.docx) is an upper-level grammar and composition course required of all Spanish majors and minors. As stated in the first learning objective on the syllabus, it is designed to help students “recognize, understand and utilize a variety of formal composition discourses, in particular to construct a well-organized, persuasive paper in Spanish.” The ability to navigate these different discourses and write effective essays is crucial for student success in advanced literature and culture seminars
When I was first introduced to the course, it quickly became apparent that the current design was not leading students to desired learning outcomes, particularly in terms of academic writing. Student engagement with the literary texts used for class discussion and essays was low, many students struggled to formulate strong thesis statements, and the structure of essay assignments was not aligned with a process-writing model. Outside of three medium-sized essays described in the Assignment #1 Guidelines (.docx), students were tasked with relatively little writing practice; the core academic activity of the course consisted of readings and discussion. Colleagues would also complain that students in downstream courses would still be struggling with thesis statements and constructing a coherent argument or analysis.
To address these issues, I implemented ideas I learned in CTE’s “Best Practices Institute.” It was through this week-long workshop and accompanying consultation with faculty and staff from across campus that I chose micro-writing as the focal point of this intervention for SPAN 424.
Micro-writing assignments (or microthemes, as John C. Bean calls them in his book, Engaging Ideas) are defined by three main traits:
- They are short (less than 250 words)
- They are targeted (students are given a prompt or point of focus for their writing)
- They are low-pressure (low-grade impact, if any)
A colleague of mine, Dr. Cécile Accilien, had used this idea in the form of a précis in her own courses to great effect. This seemed like a potentially powerful way to address the issues regarding thesis statements and the construction of coherent arguments and analysis. And so, in SPAN 424 I began asking students to complete a piece of micro-writing each week, over our longer break (from Wednesday - Monday or Thursday - Tuesday, rather than during the one mid-week off day).
I employed three types of micro-writing. The first was connected to the course’s essays, with the goal of implementing more of a process-writing approach. Students would use the micro-writing assignment to workshop their thesis statements or try to compose an anti-thesis to their own thesis statement to show that they were taking an argumentative, rather than informative, stance. In one instance we used this assignment to create an annotated bibliography in conjunction with a library session. In these weeks, all students completed the same task, and we always took at least some class time during the following meetings to share our work with classmates and to give and receive some feedback.
The second two types were offered in non-essay-focused weeks, and students could choose to do one or the other:
Option 1: A traditional analytical question. In some instances this was a minute paper (write your biggest take away from the text for next class and one open-ended question about it); other times it was focused on a particular element of the text. For example, how does this piece reflect the genre of magical realism as a whole? (docx)
Option 2: A creative piece. When discussing love poetry, for example, students could write their own sonnet—in the target language, with some flexibility in terms of syllable count and rhyme scheme—and then a paragraph about the experience of writing poetry in Spanish. One student poem that sticks with me, entitled “A la mujer en el restaurante”/”To the woman in the restaurant” begins as a typical poem of unrequited love, but in the final stanza gives us a twist as we learn that the speaker was not pining for the woman but rather for their food order. Students had the option to imagine they were theater directors and decide what other works to pair with a Cervantes entremes, they wrote (or drew) an epilogue to a dystopian sci-fi comic, and they chose a social message close to their personal interests and described what creative form would best communicate that message, in so doing completing pre-writing for stories, short films, comics and more.
Grading was formative, low-pressure, each task worth up to ten points. Students who completed the task with minimal grammatical errors would receive full credit. Even if I initially found their thesis or organization to be lacking, they would get full credit for the micro-writing activity, and I would include suggestions for improvement in their feedback. The only way to lose points here would be to go off task or to commit so many grammar errors that I would be unable to understand the argument. The essays were graded more strictly, as there were specific elements of good academic writing and thesis development that I was looking for, which were outlined in the rubric (docx).
Bean, John C. Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
The results of incorporating micro-writing were overwhelmingly positive. Despite a small sample size (Spring 2018 n=28; Fall 2018 n=14), I found statistically significant improvement in the grades on an essay used in both versions of the course. This improvement was seen overall and in two particular rubric areas: thesis (p=.0417) and content (p=.0298). Student scores in these areas were significantly higher in the class with micro-writing than had been the case in previous iterations of SPAN 424.
Beyond the quantitative data, the anecdotal/qualitative also shows the value in including micro-writing in this course. Students were better prepared for class and more engaged in materials having had an additional reason to read and prepare before meeting. Discussion improved, particularly on the first class of the week as students used their micro-writings to kick things off. Student evaluations praised the micro-writings, in particular the inclusion of a creative option.
Escribe tu propio soneto sobre el amor. Debe de consistir en cuatro estrofas: dos cuartetos y dos tercetos. Está bien ser un poco flexible con el número exacto de sílabos (aproximadamente endecasílabo) y rima. Después del soneto, incluye 2-4 frases para explicarlo (el tema, tu estrategia al escribirlo, etc.)
Translation: Write your own sonnet about love. It should consist of four stanzas: two quartets and two tercets. It’s fine to be a bit flexible with the exact number of syllables (about hendecasyllable) and rhyme. After your sonnet, include 2-4 sentences to explain it (the theme, your strategy when writing, etc.)
A la mujer en el restaurante
A partir de ese momento te vi de todas partes,
Verte fue bastante para acelerarse mi corazón,
Pero mi amor para ti fue manía – ninguna razón,
Te di mis deseos, para a extraños quería darlos;
Me dijiste sus excusas, pero todas fueron tardes,
Y ahora por amarte, me convierto en un bufón,
Mi amor fue incendio, pero fuiste monzón;
Este es la historia, una serie de contraste:
Una persona que hace, una persona que espera;
Mi único pedido es vuelve a mí, amiga,
Un segundo sin ti es una herida repetida;
Pero no me duele el corazón, y no me duele el alma,
La fuente de dolor es solo la barriga;
¡Pero no más, ahí estás – la camarera con mi comida!
Quería la mayoría del poema parece como un soneto de amor típico hasta el fin. Mientras hacerlo, me gusta el proceso de creatividad. El proceso de escribir, al otro lado, fue un poco menos divertido. No soy un poeta en inglés, y definitivamente no soy un poeta en español. Tenía muchos problemas con la rima, el ritmo, y la estructura. Para buscar rimas, (porque no sé rimas en español naturalmente), usé el internet y Google. Fue más útil, y todavía tengo mi cordura gracias solo al internet. Debajo de este párrafo, puede ver el plan del poema. Busqué el patrón de rima, elegí la rima, y pasé mucho tiempo para escribir un soneto que (ojalá) tiene algún sentido.
To the woman in the restaurant
From that moment I saw you everywhere,
Seeing you was enough to make my heart beat faster,
But my love for you was manic – void of reason,
I gave you my desires, to give to others;
You told me your excuses, but all were late
And now for loving you, I am changed into a buffoon
My love was a fire, you were a monsoon;
This is the story, a tale of contrasts:
One who does, one who waits;
My only request is that you return to me, friend,
One second without you is a repeated wounding;
But it is not my hear that hurts, not my soul
The source of pain is just my belly;
¡But no more, here you are – the server with my food!
I wanted the majority of the poem to seem like a typical love sonnet until the end. While doing it, I enjoyed the creative process. The process of writing, though, was a bit less fun. I’m not a poet in English, and definitively not in Spanish either. I had a lot of difficulty with the rhyme, rhythm and structure. To find rhymes (because I don’t know them in Spanish naturally), I used the internet and Google. It was useful and I’m still sane thanks to the internet. Below this paragraph you can see the plan for the poem. I looked for the rhyme scheme, chose the rhyme and spent a lot of time writing a sonnet that (hopefully) makes some sense.
ABBA; ABBA; CDE; CDE
A = -es
B = -zón
C = -ra
D = -ga
E = -ida
- A – A partir de ese momento te vi de todas partes, (16)
- B – Verte fue bastante para acelerarse mi corazón (17)
- B – Pero mi amor para ti fue manía– ninguna razón, (17)
- A –te di mis deseos, pero a extraños quería darlos; (17)
- A – me dijiste sus excusas, pero todas fueron tardes, (16)
- B – y ahora por amarte, me convierto un bufón, (16)
- B – Mi amor fue incendio, pero fuiste monzón, (15)
- A – Este es la historia, una serie de contraste: (17)
- C – Una persona que hace, una persona que espera; (17)
- D – Mí único pedido es vuelve a mi amiga, (15)
- E – Un segundo sin ti es una herida repetida (16)
- C – Pero no me duele el corazón, y no me duele el alma, (18)
- D – La fuente de dolor es solo la barriga, (13)
- E – ¡Pero no más, ahí estás- la camarera con mi comida! (18)
In the above creative piece, the student is engaging with Spanish poetry in a much deeper way than we can achieve through class discussion alone. They used the rhyme scheme of a traditional sonnet, and in doing so not only learned more about this particular poetic form but also expanded their vocabulary, searching for words to help them stick to the form. In terms of content, they connect with the same themes that we discussed in class – love sonnets – but twist readers’ expectations at the end by revealing that the poetic voice is not in love with the waitress but with the food that she is bringing. For a student poem to be playful in this way, the author must have a strong grasp of our source materials. The student has come away from this assignment and unit with a greater understanding of the poetic forms and techniques being studied, as well as an expanded vocabulary.
Two more student examples of essay preparation include the introduction and thesis from their first micro-writing version, as well as that of the complete essay which they ultimately handed in. The most important element to student success in both examples is the added layer of feedback that the micro-writing assignment provides. In prior semesters, the first time an instructor saw a students thesis statement was in the final product. Here, however, I was able to provide feedback on both students’ thesis statements before they handed in the graded, complete essay. Both the higher- (.docx) and lower-performing (.docx) examples here suffered the same issue with their thesis statements: lack of specificity. In the former, the student goes from a general statement about showing how the space around Wescoe could be used positively to declaring Wescoe an architectural success due to its distribution of bench space and proximity to food. In the latter, the student goes from saying that their essay will explore the dating app Tinder’s negative impact on young people to specifying that his analysis will focus on issues of self-esteem, predatory behavior and creating a tainted idea of love among young people. These examples make clear that the feedback received on their micro-writing assignments from both peers in an in-class discussion and from their instructor through Blackboard called student attention to the issue of thesis development and led to improved thesis statement in their final versions.
Prior to enacting this intervention, my big fear was that this assignment would add significantly to instructor workload. I think this is a fear that many instructors share when considering adding anything to their classes. Based on my experience with micro-writing in SPAN 424, though, I would argue that, if anything, the incorporation of these assignments has reduced my workload.
First, the evaluation itself was minimal work. Each piece took no more than three to five minutes to read and provide a sentence or two of feedback on. This added about an hour per week of grading for each section of the class, 16 total hours over the course of the semester. This is not insignificant. However, after incorporating micro-writing, grading the three big essays was a quicker process, because I had already seen and given some feedback on students’ thesis statements and argument outlines. This familiarity and the fact that I had less to correct on the final version sped up that process.
It also meant less work on class preparation. On essay days, we took time in class to unpack thesis statements and argument outlines, which meant less course preparation for me as an instructor. On other days, the combination of analytical and creative choices created great starting points for class discussion. For reference, usually about 2/3 of the class opted for the traditional approach, 1/3 the creative, but it changed on the individual level from week-to-week. The analytical prompts included open-ended questions that we used in class to guide discussion.
Sharing the creative pieces proved to be extremely engaging. Students were able to see themselves – their interests, their issues – more clearly in what we studied. Course texts were suddenly more immediate and relevant. And going out on a creative limb made the class feel like a more tightly knit learning community in the sense that they learned more about one another and learned to feel comfortable sharing their creative sides. All of this took place while asking relatively little of the instructor.
To summarize, I draw three major conclusions from this experience:
- Micro-writing is effective in reaching learning outcomes, at least as they pertain to writing, thesis development, etc.
- Rather than add to instructor load, micro-writing decreases grading and class prep time.
- There is space for creativity, even in traditionally more rigid academic courses, as a way of engaging students with course materials and inviting discussion.
In the future, I would like to continue to see micro-writing assignments used in SPAN 424 and throughout our curriculum.
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